Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Extinction of Compassion: A Tale of Empires and Elephants 2/2

by Nomad

Here's the conclusion of the historical tale of the last days of the Roman Republic and the revenge of the slaughtered elephants. We will also compare those brutal times to our own.

In the first of this two-part series we recounted how the ambitious masters of Rome were step by step destroying the Republic. In public spectacle in 55 BC, the audience, so used to bloodshed, were suddenly unexpectedly repulsed by the cruel slaughter of 18 elephants, who had begged in vain for mercy. Instead of applauding Pompey, the sponsor of the celebrations, the disgusted citizens of Rome denounced and cursed him.  
Let's watch the rest of this classic tragedy play out.

Destinies Fulfilled
It didn't take long for the Gods to answer the calls of revenge from the dying elephants and the curses of the Roman public. Within two years, the First Triumvirate tottered and collapsed.
The intermarriage ties between Caesar and Pompey- Pompey was married to Caesar's daughter Julia- dissolved upon her tragic death in childbirth.

First to die was Marcus Crassus, one third of the three-way alliance. After a military disaster in the East against the Parthians, his troops mutinied in Syria, and was later murdered while trying to arrange a humiliating peace negotiation. According to accounts from one Roman historian, his particularly gruesome death at the hands of his enemy was meant to be a testament to his greed. Molten gold was supposedly poured down his throat while he still alive.

A showdown between Caesar and Pompey now seemed all but inevitable.

For five more years, Pompey managed to hold onto Rome. That all quickly unraveled when Caesar returned from successfully conquering of Gaul (modern day France) with his sizable armies and considerably more wealth. Certainly enough to bribe whomever stood in his way.
In open defiance of Senate orders to bring his troops into Rome and to come alone and unprotected, Caesar and his armies continued a march south, crossing the Rubicon. That act was a declaration that he would no longer take orders from the Senate.

The political crisis had now become an all-out civil war. After losing battles in Spain and Greece, Pompey's hold on power became less and less convincing. With the Roman people' and the city armies' allegiance unreliable, Pompey had little choice but to flee (along with much of the Senate) to Egypt, with hopes of later re-establishing control. From there, he presumably planned to cut all grain shipments to Rome and force Caesar into negotiations.
It was not to be.

On September 28, 48 BC - Pompey was betrayed by those that had promised him protection. Ptolemy the young king of Egypt, had decided that by giving Pompey sanctuary, Egypt "would have Caesar for an enemy and Pompey for a master." 
It was decided therefore, by cold calculation, that the safest choice would be the murder of Pompey in the hopes of gratifying Caesar. Later, that plan would allow the possibility of removing Caesar too.

So, upon his arrival in Egypt, indeed just as he was docking, Pompey was stabbed to death and beheaded. (Later when Caesar arrived in Egypt, Ptolemy thought he would honor Caesar with a gift, the head of his once friend turned enemy. Caesar was horrified and burst into tears.  Caesar soon turned his wrath upon the King of Egypt and hunted down each of his advisers.)

The curse that the slaughtered elephants cast that terrible day did not end with Pompey's death. 
Only four years later after Pompey's murder, the theater complex for which  Pompey had held the celebrations became the site of one of the most famous and cold-blooded murders in history.
The first emperor of Rome, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in an act of political assassination. That single act was to have disastrous consequences, leading to civil war that vanquished all hopes of a return to the comparative sanity of the Roman Republic.  

Instead what followed was the rise of the Roman Empire, a brutal autocracy largely based on the whims of a single, often tyrannical ruler. It was marked by wholesale exploitation of all of surrounding territories, and the enslavement of the known world. A flawed and often cruel New World Order that once installed, could not be undone and the  bitter revenge of the murdered elephants would last nearly half a millennium.

During this time, the slaughter of animals as entertainment became much worse. As the book Green History notes:
The numbers of animals killed are phenomenal, mounting into hundreds in a single say. Augustus had 3,500 animal killed in twenty-six venationes, At the dedication of the Coloseum under Titus, 9,000 were destroyed in 100 days and Trajan's conquest over Dacia was celebrated by the slaughter of 11,000 wild animals.
If the aim was proving that man was the king of all of the animals, it most certainly succeeded. But not in a way that brings any glory to humanity. As Immanuel Kant , the 18th century German philosopher, remarked:
"Man is truly the king of all animals, because. his cruelty surpasses theirs."
The Elephant as a Beast
A century later, the first naturalist, Pliny, in writing his Natural History  gives us this early description of the elephant. He wrote with great respect:
"The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon."
Through the ages, scientists have discovered even more about the uniqueness of this species. Like humans (and Neanderthals) elephants are known to have death rituals.  
If it dies, they will try to revive it with food and water for a while. Once it is clear that an elephant is dead, the herd will become very quiet. They often dig a shallow grave and cover the deceased elephant with dirt and branches, and will stay at the grave for days afterwards. If the elephant had a particularly close relationship with its deceased peer, it can show signs of depression.
Kenya-born Daphne Sheldrick who has worked with elephants for over 25 years observes that Elephants display  many of the attributes of humans as well as some of the failings. 
They share with us a strong sense of family and death and they feel many of the same emotions. Each one is, of course, like us, a unique individual with its own unique personality. They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behaviour.
Sheldrick also notes that, despite their size and the awe it naturally inspires, the elephant is an emotional and sensitive animal, capable of great depth of feeling.
...They grieve deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of compassion that projects beyond their own kind and sometimes extends to others in distress. They help one another in adversity, miss an absent loved one, and when you know them really well, you can see that they even smile when having fun and are happy.
These traits are all associated with humans, ones that we revere and consider of a higher order above the animals. These are traits like individuality, intelligence, emotions and compassion, complex social groups and the ability to share. 
We are learning that these traits are not restricted to man at all and even in humanity, they are often hard to find. 

Comparing Our Own Empire
Today, the elephant is an endangered species. There are about   600 000 African elephants, and between 30 000 and 50 000 Asian elephants. Of those, about 20% are in captivity. 

Between 1979 and 1989, the numbers of African elephants fell by a shocking 50% with around 8 elephants being slaughtered by poachers an hour.

Fortunately a ban on ivory sales in 1989 helped to slow this path toward extinction. That ban was part of a United Nations agreement called  CITES or  The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.      

However, despite an immediate slump in ivory sales, both legally and on the black market, the news isn't as good as it sounds.
Today, levels of poaching and illegal trade have spiralled out of control once again. In many areas, rates of poaching are now the worst they have been since 1989. In 2011, just thirteen of the largest seizures amounted to over 23,000 kg, breaking all records since the ivory ban. In July 2012 CITES recognised that elephant poaching had reached 'unsustainable' levels, not only in small unprotected populations but also among larger populations traditionally regarded as safe.
In 2012 alone illegal poaching was responsible for the deaths of 35,000 elephants, representing the highest rate of poaching since the 1989 ban. And for what? 
Trinkets. bangles, statuettes. 

The illegal poaching of elephant ivory is a threat even to populations within protected wildlife park zones. For example, Between January and March of this year, heavily-armed foreign poachers invaded Cameroon and killed over 300 elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park. As that went horrific enough, park officials say many orphaned elephant calves have been spotted. How they will survive is with the threat of hunger and thirst is anybody's guess. 

Officials believe that the ivory was smuggled out of the West and Central Africa and sold in markets in Asia and Europe. The proceeds from the sale will go to illegal arms purchases to arm fighters in regional conflicts, such as in Sudan and in the Central African Republic.

Knowing all this, all of this ugliness, why on earth is ivory still able to find a market at all? 
One of the problems with the ban was that it did not include ivory exported before the ban. 

The problem is, without testing, it is impossible to precisely date the This loophole has been one of the ways, ivory can still be sold legally. As one organization puts it, the exception provided a perfect cover for a black market of newly poached elephant parts.

Joining his European counterparts, President Obama last February issued an executive order on the  complete ban on the commercial sale of ivory in the US.
“That trade is decimating iconic animal populations,” Obama writes in a letter introducing the new National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. “Because of the actions of poachers, species like elephants and rhinoceroses face the risk of significant decline or even extinction. But it does not have to be that way.”
Another reason for the decline in the elephant population is the loss and degradation of its habitat in the wild. Across the globe, large areas where elephants (and other animals) call home are being cleared to make way for agriculture, housing, roads, pipelines and the other hallmarks of industrial development. The reduction of habitats imperil the fragile elephant populations in yet another way, When the remaining habitats are affected by cyclical drought, there is simply no other place for the elephants to go. 

As much as we would like to pretend that we have progressed since the days of the Romans and yet the slaughter of the elephants continues. Superficially, it may not seem as institutionalized or as cruel, but to the victims is makes little difference.
Because it doesn't occur before our eyes, as it did before Roman eyes, we can choose to ignore the extermination of a species, that is noble and intelligent and deserving of our respect. 
*   *   *
The curse of Pompey's elephants does not derive from a supernatural influence at all. There was a completely logic explanation. The French writer, poet and politician Lamartine once made this observation:
"We have not two hearts - one for the animals, and the other for man... In the cruelty toward the former and the cruelty toward the latter, there is no other difference than in the victim."
And that truth, which dawned momentarily and vaguely in the minds of the ancients Romans on that spring day back in 55 BC, is just as true today.